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Written By

Tianna Killoran


College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

3 December 2021

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Ideas taking shape

How is it that a cat always seems to find its feet and find its way? It was years of experience as a mental health clinician — along with her two trusty cat companions, Li’l Fox and Ming Ming — that helped JCU Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Dianne Salvador answer this question and write a uniquely feline-inspired self-help book — Cat Shapes.

Dianne has spent over ten years in the field of medical education, assisting medical students, graduates and interns to navigate challenging and transformational periods of their lives. “It became a mission of mine to ensure that doctors are supported in their day-to-day practice and especially during times of transition,” Dianne says.

Soon after Dianne welcomed two rescue cats into her home, she realised there were many lessons we could learn from our feline friends about agility, with many applications in our lives. So, she followed her two rescue cats Li’l Fox and Ming Ming, observing the strange and wonderful shapes they took as they adapted to their new home and went about their lives. She started photographing and documenting their changing shapes, the ways their environments shaped them and vice versa. From this work, Dianne wrote Cat Shapes, which was released in June 2021.

Cat Shapes reveals the elements of the cats’ agility as 28 moves and postures, and those elements are surprisingly similar to what is known about adaptive coping in people. The cat shapes in this book create millions of options to find a way forward. So, it is a toolkit for navigating all sorts of changes and challenges, and also for sculpting anything you can imagine,” Dianne says.

Dianne’s work in medical education informed her writing and also gave her the impetus for the book. “It was clear that the transition points in the life of a doctor, such as changing setting or seniority, presented additional demands. At these points of transition doctors could really benefit from resources to navigate the changes, challenges and opportunities,” she says.

Not only does Cat Shapes reflect scenarios from the field of medical education, it’s also a guide that can help anyone going through a transitional period in their lives.

Black and brown tortoiseshell cat stretching out to investigate a grey and brown striped cat sitting on a bench.
JCU mental health clinician Dianne Salvador wearing a floral dress and smiling standing in a hospital hallway.
Left: Dianne Salvador's two cat companions Ming Ming and Li'l Fox. Right: JCU mental health clinician Dianne Salvador. Supplied by Dianne Salvador.

A guide for when you're not feline fine

Dianne says that she designed Cat Shapes to cater to diverse needs. Whether it’s navigating relationships, the effects of the pandemic, or difficult health conditions, Cat Shapes can help people from all walks of life.

“In my view, the main challenge of life at any stage or age is navigation of changes within and around us,” Dianne says. “So, I realised that a book illustrating ways to navigate all sorts of situations could be useful to many people. Having a resource like this is especially important in times like these where there is growing uncertainty. People have something that they can turn to for ideas about how to proceed when times are difficult or when opportunities present.”

Divided into three main sections — ‘Taking Shape’, ‘Making Shapes’, and ‘Shaping Ways’ — the book allows readers to build a path to navigate change and challenge in their lives, whether it is an everyday situation, or a time of challenge or crisis.

“I let the pictures tell most of the story in Cat Shapes rather than using words to tell the reader what I want them to find. This enables the reader to surface their own insights and wisdom,” Dianne says.

Whether it’s images of Dianne’s two cats curled up together, Ming Ming rolling playfully in the grass, or Li’l Fox curiously investigating their environment, each image tells a story about different approaches we can take to different situations.

Cat Shapes is all about recognising that we are dynamic beings interacting with a dynamic world. Once we figure out what we want to move towards and have ideas for how to proceed, we gain access to the vast possibilities that each moment presents.”

JCU Senior Lecturer Dianne Salvador

“Each chapter has its own broad concept related to transformation,” she says. “‘Taking Shape’ is the first chapter, revealing that we are dynamic beings interacting with a dynamic world. We have a capacity to shape ourselves, our lives and the world around us. The next chapter is ‘Making Shapes’, which focuses on the 28 different shapes or approaches that can be used to respond to emerging demands, choose and change direction, and improve our lives.”

The last section, ‘Shaping Ways’, provides constructive options to navigate life using combinations of shapes. “This is where the magic happens,” Dianne says. “Usually, we don’t just take one action and stop if we want to create change. By combining a number of the shapes, we can find millions of ways forward.”

Ming Ming and Li'l Fox, Dianne's two rescue cats, in the 'shape' of company and solitude.

Supplied by Dianne Salvador

A purr-fect tool for doctors

While Cat Shapes has a lighthearted tone at the surface, it also has a more serious undertone. Dianne says support for doctors’ wellbeing is important at every stage of their career. “There’s so much expected of our doctors and the demands of practice are increasingly high. Doctors need reliable support and systems that enable sustainable practice,” Dianne says.

Dianne had previously published books about mentoring doctors and co-founded ‘Doctors for Doctors Mentoring Program’, but she felt that Cat Shapes could also work as a metaphorical guide for doctors. “At work I was supporting doctors who were navigating all sorts of change and challenge, and in my home I had these expert navigators demonstrating how navigation and transition could be done,” Dianne says. “Cats have a lot they can teach us.”

The book also comes with reflection questions and a pocket-sized Navigation Card. "In fact, the card was made at the request of a doctor who wanted a resource based on the book that was small enough to fit in their pocket,” Dianne says. “In moments where they feel stuck or overwhelmed, they have a resource at hand to help them find a way forward, whether that’s just one immediate action or picking out a series of actions to forge a path.”

Although Cat Shapes was only released recently in June 2021, Dianne says that she has been amazed by the positive response. “I had hoped that the book would resonate with people and provide hope and ways forward through all sorts of situations, but the level of positive response has really surprised and thrilled me. People are expressing their love for the book in quite emotional ways and requesting more copies,” she says.

Cat Shapes is a simple but powerful resource. Dianne says, “The little kids love it and the grown-ups also love it, even those who aren’t cat lovers. There’s something for everyone in it and there’s always more to discover every time they pick it up and read it.”

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